In what surely must be one of the more unusual press releases from the Israel Antiquities Authority (iaa), news broke today of the discovery of eight large, over 4,000-year-old ostrich eggs uncovered in the Nitzana sand dunes of the Negev (a desert in southern Israel). The eggs were discovered near the fire pit of an ancient campsite, so their intended purpose is evident: human consumption.
“We found a campsite, which extends over about 200 square meters, that was used by the desert nomads since prehistoric times,” said Lauren Davis, the iaa director of the excavation. “At the site we found burnt stones, flint and stone tools as well as pottery sherds, but the truly special find is this collection of ostrich eggs. Although the nomads did not build permanent structures at this site, the finds allow us to feel their presence in the desert.”
“This is a very important find that—with the help of modern scientific methods—can teach us a lot about the nomadic people of the desert in ancient times,” she said. The eggs have been dated to at least 4,000 years ago—c. 2000 b.c.e.—but the researchers note that they may well date to long before this.
As the press release highlights, ostriches were once common in the area, only becoming extinct in the wild over the last 200 years. Interestingly, while remains of their eggs have been found at various archaeological sites from various periods, this is not the case for the remains of the giant birds themselves. As highlighted by Dr. Amir Gorzalczany: “It is interesting, that whilst ostrich eggs are not uncommon in excavations, the bones of the large bird are not found. This may indicate that in the ancient world, people avoided tackling the ostrich and were content with collecting their eggs.”
This fact, and latest discovery, brings to mind a passage in the book of Job (a book whose general chronological and geographical setting ironically fits well):
The wing of the ostrich beateth joyously; But are her pinions and feathers the kindly stork’s?
For she [the ostrich] leaveth her eggs on the earth, And warmeth them in the dust,
And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, Or that the wild beast may trample them.
She is hardened against her young ones, as if they were not hers;
Though her labour be in vain, she is without fear;
Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, Neither hath He imparted to her understanding. (Job 39:13-17)
As Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon notes of this passage, “[T]he Arabs call the female ostrich ظليم impious bird, on account of her neglect of her young ….” Indeed, as another source on ostrich reproduction states, “usually only half of the eggs survive due to predators.”
Those predators, evidently, include humans.